Conference redefines boundaries
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Jan 29, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

Conference redefines boundaries

Stratford Gazette

Chet Greason

“How like a winter hath my absence been

From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!”

– William Shakespeare, Sonnet XCVII

For seven short, cold, January days, Newfoundlander Jenn Dean was reunited with old friends; like-minded people who share her unique passions and struggles.

Dean is artistic director and chair of Shakespeare by the Sea, a summer theatre festival that performs works of the Bard, among others, in several outdoor venues around St. John’s.

She was in Stratford last week as part of the Shakespeare Theatre Association’s 24th annual conference, which was last held here in 1996. The conference attracts artistic, managing, and education directors from Shakespearean theatres the world over. This year attendees came from as far away as Brazil, Australia, and the Czech Republic.

“When we get here, it’s like we’re with our people,” Dean said. “People who understand you … who are obsessed with the same things you are, and who understand the challenges you face.”

Dean said the conference, which she attends every year, leaves her feeling renewed and ready to take on another year. She also had high praise for Stratford’s theatre company.

“As a Canadian, running a Canadian Shakespeare company, Stratford is the centre. It’s what you aspire to.”

Dean and 39 of her colleagues were part of a smaller group that took in all seven days of the conference. The first three, designated as the education practicum, included workshops in clowning, directing, and hip-hop Shakespeare. Day four, Wednesday, Jan. 22, saw the full 127 attendees congregate; greeted by a welcoming reception, a screening of the 1954 Academy Award nominated documentary The Stratford Adventure, which tells of the founding of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and a keynote address from Stratford’s artistic director, Antoni Cimolino.

Theatre can change the world

Cimolino began by thanking attendees for coming to Stratford in January, referencing the extremely snowy weather the area experienced last week. He then delivered a very stirring speech regarding the struggle theatres face to remain vibrant, relevant, and culturally-important in the modern age.

“The government doesn’t subsidize theatre (in North America) like it does in Europe,” he said, adding because North American companies rely primarily on box office sales for revenue it can often lead to artistic directors making “safe” decisions when it comes to selecting playbills.

“We feel pressure to entertain. To comfort instead of challenge,” he said.  “Who could fault us, in this terrible economy, if we’re eager to please?”

However, he warned in selecting safe works focused on fun and frolicking, theatres risk courting banality. This, he added, is a risk facing not only the stage, but culture at large.

Cimolino cited his time spent directing 2011’s Stratford production of The Grapes of Wrath as a kind of awakening, when he saw the potential for theatre to reach across boundaries. The cast and crew’s research into current examples of the migrant worker experience hurled the dustbowl-era Steinbeck story into a present context. Other events of that year, including the Occupy movement against economic inequality, further convinced Cimolino that his company had to look beyond the fourth wall.

When Cimolino became artistic director two years later, he founded The Forum, an ongoing series of discussions and debates linked to the themes found within a season’s given texts. Another new initiative, the Laboratory, explores new ways of telling seldom performed classics and stories from other cultures.

“As human beings, we need to look into our hearts,” he said; and, due to the empathy generated by its person-to-person exchange, “Theatre lends itself to this kind of examination.”

“We might risk bad reviews, or alienating our sponsors, (but) if we don’t, given enough time, we will surely destroy our souls.”

The power of words

It was the subject of the inherent power found in the words of Shakespeare’s plays that gave this year’s conference its theme, Speak the Speech: The Power of Words.

Attendee Curt Tofteland believes heavily in the power of the Bard’s words. His organization, Shakespeare Behind Bars, uses theatre as a means of helping incarcerated inmates in Michigan and Kentucky from reverting back to a life of crime upon their release.

“Inmates, once they’re out, often don’t have a fair shake,” he explained in an interview at the conference’s welcoming reception. “They can’t get housing, they can’t get jobs. No one wants a felon around.

“Our work uses art, theatre, and Shakespeare to define what it is to be a human being,” he said, adding his program boasts a recidivism rate of under six per cent, compared to the national average of 67 per cent.

Mercedes de la Torre and Carlos Drocchi, from Buenos Aires, Argentina, flew 22 hours to represent their organization, Fundación Shakespeare Argentina.

“It’s an opportunity to connect North and South America,” said de la Torre, noting though Shakespeare is popular in her country, there’s not enough education to familiarize people with his works. Her organization seeks to change that.

“We’re very proud of what we are doing. We’re building bridges between Argentina and the rest of the Shakespearean world.”

The topic of words bled into the topics of the various workshops, which included discussions on iambic pentameter, social networking, and the development of Shakespeare’s verse over time.

One such workshop, offered on Saturday, was entitled Cross-Gender and Non-traditional Casting. It explored how words can change when men’s parts are read by women, when women’s parts are read by men, or when roles traditionally played by white people are instead portrayed by a person of colour.

“Like most of you with two X chromosomes, I grew up loving Shakespeare; then I found out I can’t really do it, seeing as there’s maybe only two parts for me,” said moderator Rebecca Ennals of San Francisco Shakespeare.

Her organization, and others like it, are exploring how the text can take on new meaning depending on who is cast to say it.

As the vast majority of Shakespearean roles were written for white males, that demographic is seen as a kind of default.

“White males can play anything,” noted Ennals. “But casting a person of colour or a woman in the same role means something.”

As an example, two scenes from Othello were performed using cross-gender casting. Lisa Wolpe, from Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company, read Iago opposite Debra Ann Byrd of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival’s Othello. Then Nick Salamone and Sean Hagerty, both of the New York Classical Theatre, played Desdemona and Emelia respectively.

“When you have cross-gender casting, everything is highlighted,” enthused an audience member during a panel discussion following the scenes.

“Once you start, you can’t stop”

Jenn Dean gets a sparkle in her eyes when she talks about Shakespeare, and you can tell she’s in her element when surrounded by her peers.

“It’s emotional,” she said of her annual trip to the conference. “It’s powerful. I come every year. Once you start, you can’t stop.”

Curt Tofteland also believes in the positive, transformative power of Shakespeare. He sees it changing the lives of the inmates he works with.

“A lot of these guys are abused young people, or from populations that, by and large, don’t seem to be cared about. That’s why Shakespeare works so well with them. He speaks to the outsiders.”

The theme of the outsider is a topic the Stratford Festival’s Cimolino knows well; last year’s playbill was built around the concept using productions like Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and The Merchant of Venice.

“Theatre matters in this world, but we can take it further,” he said.

Expect great things from the 2014 playbill, which centres around the topic of madness, strain, pressure, and metamorphosis. Featured plays include King Lear, King John, and Alice Through the Looking Glass, as well as dual productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of which will feature a same-sex marriage via cross-gender casting. Meanwhile, the forum will host discussions on topics such as teen suicide, war zones, and the de-radicalization of Islamic youth.

Cimolino closed his speech by saying such exploration “will lend itself to more committed art; will make a genuine connection. And maybe, given time, it will change the world.”

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